The Challenge of Taking Over Leadership of an Existing Team

Monday, January 5, 2015


As the outsider, you’ve got to figure out who’s who on the team. Meanwhile, you’re going to be hot on the trail of figuring out what’s what. If you are new to the entire organization, you’ve got an extra layer of orientation and learning to do. In any event, you need to learn the nuts and bolts of your new job and then start learning the nuts and bolts of the job of every one of your direct reports. If you are also a new employee, you need to be welcomed, introduced, onboarded, oriented, and brought up-to-speed.

Gather Information

While your new employer likely offers a new hire orientation program, it is often sparse and inadequate, especially to get up to speed in a leadership role. Start looking for resources from which you can start teaching yourself:

  • the organization’s big picture: its vision, mission, values, and culture
  • where your team fits in the organization
  • the work of your new team
  • broad performance standards and workplace expectations
  • company systems, practices, procedures.

As you are doing all this learning, never forget that your first and foremost responsibility will be managing your new direct reports.
Hold Team Meetings

Everyone on your team is going to be wondering: “Who are you?” “What are your plans?” “How will you manage?” and “What will it all mean for me?”


Because you are the outsider and new to everyone, it’s important to have a series of team meetings in the early stages of your new regime. You need a forum where you can say the same things to everybody in the same way at the same time, in which everybody can speak on the record in front of each other, hear each other, and respond spontaneously.

You need the light of public disclosure and discussion—at least for a little while. Depending on the group dynamics, more or less information may come out in a team meeting format. My advice to new managers in this situation is stage a series of brainstorming sessions around three questions:

  1. What should change about how our team operates?
  2. What should not change?
  3. If you were suddenly the team manager, what would your first, second and third priorities be? 

The ground rules are simple: Everybody is required to participate. Comments must be about work performance only, not about personal traits and characteristics of any individual. I recommend sitting in a circle if the group is not too big. That way you can go around the circle (clockwise or counterclockwise) for each question, getting everyone to respond to the first; then everyone responds to the second; and then the third. Depending on the size of the group and the amount of baggage people are carrying, this can take hours. You might want to split it into three separate sessions.
You will gather key data from your new team about what they think is working and what they think is not working. At the same time, you’ll learn so much about each of them and their working relationships from their responses to these questions. Take notes in these sessions, with special note of any point from one of your new employees that you’d like to follow up on in a one-on-one discussion. These follow-up discussions will reinforce to your new direct-reports that you are listening and taking their input seriously.

Meet One-on-One with Team Members

As you start your substantive one-on-ones in earnest, your first mission with every direct report will be to get up-to-speed on the fundamentals of his job. Ask, what are his current projects, tasks and responsibilities? For each meeting:

  • review examples of past work product, and work in progress
  • review background materials, standard operating procedures, instructions, manuals, checklists, or other job aids, such as frequently asked questions
  • talk to key people inside and outside the team with whom the employee works regularly.
  • look for opportunities to shadow the employee and watch him do the work.

Meet much more often with every person at first. With this systematic approach, you will get up-to-speed in a matter of weeks and be in a position to provide at least some guidance and support. Over time, your conversations will become more knowledgeable and your ability to give direction increasingly acute.
You will be amazed at how quickly you can get yourself up to full operating capacity as a manager in this way.


About the Author

Bruce Tulgan is internationally recognized as the leading expert on young people in the workplace and one of the leading experts on leadership and management. Bruce is a best-selling author, an adviser to business leaders all over the world, and a sought-after keynote speaker and management trainer.

Since 1995, Bruce has worked with tens of thousands of leaders and managers in hundreds of organizations ranging from Aetna to Wal-Mart; from the Army to the YMCA.  In recent years, Bruce was named by Management Today as one of the few contemporary figures to stand out as a “management guru” and he was named to the 2009 Thinkers 50 rising star list. On August 13, 2009, Bruce was honored to accept Toastmasters International’s most prestigious honor, the Golden Gavel. This honor is annually presented to a single person who represents excellence in the fields of communication and leadership. Past winners have included Stephen Covey, Zig Ziglar, Deepak Chopra, Tony Robbins, Ken Blanchard, Tom Peters, Art Linkletter, Dr. Joyce Brothers, and Walter Cronkite.

Bruce’s most recent book, The 27 Challenges Managers Face: Step-by-step Solutions to (Nearly) All of Your Management Challenges (Jossey-Bass/Wiley, 2014) was published in September, 2014.  He is also the author of the best-seller It’s Okay to Be the Boss (HarperCollins, 2007) and the classic Managing Generation X (W.W. Norton, 2000; first published in 1995). Bruce’s other books include Winning the Talent Wars (W.W. Norton, 2001), which received widespread acclaim from Fortune 500 CEOs and business journalists; the best-seller Fast Feedback (HRD Press, 1998); Not Everyone Gets a Trophy: Managing Generation Y (Jossey-Bass, 2009); Managing the Generation Mix (HRD Press, 2006) and It’s Okay to Manage Your Boss (Jossey-Bass, 2010).   Many of Bruce’s works have been published around the world in foreign editions.

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Great article Bruce! Excellent way of taking care of oneself in a new leadership position especially in this era of constant change.
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